- Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana by Steven Feld
Jazz Cosmopolitanism presents a nuanced and complex theorization of the sonic, material, and imagined connections of the Black Atlantic through the words and music of Ghanaian musicians. The birthplace of hybrid musical styles including highlife, palmwine, and bɔbɔɔbɔ, Ghana has been fertile ground for such soundings and imaginings for well over a hundred years. In his written compliment to a series of DVDs and CDs, Steven Feld offers us a glimpse into the music and philosophies of three jazz musicians (Guy Warren/Ghanaba, Nii Noi Nortey, and Nii Otoo Annan) and a por por squeeze-bulb honk-horn ensemble invented by and for the Accra La Drivers Union—multifaceted subjects all—in 21st-century Accra. Drawing from the theoretical framework of cosmopolitanism, Feld situates these musicians within a sound world pervaded by race, class, spirituality, and politics. Looming over it all is the legacy of American jazz, especially John Coltrane and the New Orleans second line.
Feld's goal is to explore the sonic and political worlds of Accra by way of story telling that recounts his interactions, including conversations, jam sessions, and recording projects. He explores the musicians' life stories through such theoretical lenses as cosmopolitanism, diasporic intimacy, and acoustemology, acknowledging the many contradictions therein.1 Juxtaposing his own voice and the voices of his collaborators in his theoretical work of telling stories, Feld writes that these dialogic encounters mimic "the way I have listened in to repetitions and ruptures, reemplacing stories in my voice and thus theorizing their experiential authority through performed intervocality rather than through academic contextualization," insisting that "cosmopolitanism is produced and circulated in storied encounters" (202).
The seven chapters are laid out in the form of a hard-bop jazz performance. Following a brief foreword ("Four-Bar Intro") and introduction ("Vamp In, Head") are four chapters dedicated to each of the musicians and the por por ensemble, [End Page 221] followed by a "non-conclusion" ("Head Again, Vamp Out"). In the chapter on Ghanaba ("First Chorus, with Transposition"), we are treated to Cold War–era intrigue via recollections of his life as a jazz drummer and spy for the United States. Feld's expertise as an ethnographer and jazz aficionado are revealed in a series of enlightening interviews that draw out the many ironies of Ghanaba's personality—at turns bitter, jealous, spiritual, jocular, and brilliant. Nii Noi Nortey ("Second Chorus, Blow Free"), multi-instrumentalist and creator of the hybrid afriphone, is a fascinating subject, having traveled to the United Kingdom in the 1970s as an economics student only to become a devotee of John Coltrane (even building a shrine to the late jazz great), and eventually touring Africa and Europe in a reggae band. Through interview transcriptions, Feld teases out Nii Noi's personal spiritual-political philosophy, a Pan-African politics grounded as much in the music of Coltrane as in the philosophy of Kwame Nkrumah, and constructed from a cosmopolitan mash-up of black African, European, and American icons.
Nii Otoo Annan ("Third Chorus, Back Inside") is unique among the jazz musicians featured in the book in that he grew up a prodigy of traditional music in a working-class Ga neighborhood and had not traveled outside Ghana before his work with Feld. Nii Otoo's cosmopolitanism, insofar as it is bound up in connections with Europe and the Americas, is mediated through cinema and LPs, notably recordings from Coltrane's later period. The history of the Accra-based La Drivers Union informs the following chapter's ("Fourth Chorus, Shout to the Groove") exploration of the individual and social importance of nicknames for people and vehicles in Ghana. The connection of the por por ensemble's performances to jazz comes in what Feld observes to be their uncanny resemblance to the jazz funerals of New Orleans, two traditions of the Black Atlantic with much in common despite separate histories.
It is not an ethnography in the traditional sense, but rather "a memoir of...